MLB American League Central 2019 Preview
Chicago White Sox
The safest prediction to make for the White Sox is that 2019 cannot be as miserable as 2018, even if the franchise manages to lose 100 games again.
It couldn’t be. Not after relief pitcher Danny Farquhar nearly died in the dugout with a blood clot on his brain in April. And 2017 top draft pick Jake Burger ruptured his left Achilles tendon in spring training before tearing it a second time in May. And top pitching prospect Michael Kopech was shut down for Tommy John surgery in early September after making four impressive starts in the big leagues. And the team’s aggressive rebuilding push was stalled when other top prospects Zack Burdi, Dane Dunning, Alec Hansen, Micker Adolfo and Luis Robert lost significant development time to injuries. The Sox needed more than a talent infusion — they needed an exorcism.
Add that backdrop to a team that set the major league record for strikeouts and lost 27 of its first 36 games, and the Sox have to be better this season, especially with the additions of Ivan Nova to the starting rotation, Alex Colome to the bullpen, catcher James McCann and first baseman Yonder Alonso.
But the primary improvement must come from the team’s young veterans as well as the touted arrivals from the farm system.
The Indians will dip their big toe into the uncertain waters of rebuilding this season. It’s not a total rip-it-down-to-the-studs rebuild, but the signs are there. Besides that, they’ll try to do the hardest thing in baseball — win while turning over big chunks of the roster. Thank goodness for the AL Central.
Manager Terry Francona’s team has won three straight division titles and is favored to win a fourth in 2019, but the cast of characters has changed. Free agents Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Lonnie Chisenhall, Josh Donaldson and Rajai Davis are gone. Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, Yan Gomes and Yandy Diaz were traded so the Indians could reduce the payroll.
What remains is a finely tuned starting rotation led by two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and two of the best young position players in baseball — Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The bullpen has closer Brad Hand and little else. The outfield is an empty page of players such as Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin and Leonys Martin coming off injuries and/or life-threatening illnesses. The final story in the green pasture of Progressive Field is a long way from being written.
The Indians have posted six straight winning seasons. In that time they’ve made four postseason appearances, won three division titles, one pennant and reached Game 7 of the World Series. A seventh consecutive winning season is in order, and so is another trip to the postseason, but this is the most vulnerable the Indians have been since they shocked baseball by winning 92 games in 2013 after losing 94 games the previous year. If a hot team emerges from the rubble of the rebuilding AL Central, they’ll have a chance to beat the Indians.
Four years after their last playoff appearance and 20 months after the trade of Justin Verlander signaled a new direction, the Tigers are deep in the throes of a difficult rebuild as the 2019 season approaches, having nearly halved their payroll from the free-spending days of just a couple years ago. Longtime designated hitter Victor Martinez, who retired, is the latest glory-era cornerstone to disappear into the sunset, but the Tigers are still hamstrung by the $55 million — roughly half their projected 2019 payroll — they will pay this year to untradeable veterans Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann. The meager pickups the Tigers made this winter — lefty Matt Moore, shortstop Jordy Mercer, righthander Tyson Ross — are best viewed as stopgaps or potential trade chips in July. On the heels of consecutive 98-loss seasons, this should be another tough year at Comerica Park.
Kansas City Royals
Speed and defense (along with a shutdown bullpen) were at the heart of the Kansas City Royals’ surge, culminating with the 2015 World Series championship. The club hasn’t finished above .500 in the three seasons since, matching the second-most losses in franchise history in 2018 (104). But GM Dayton Moore has made it clear that nothing has changed philosophically for Kansas City, which plays in a relatively cavernous ballpark and still covets athleticism — the fuel for its speed and defensive preference. The Royals largely sat on the sidelines during free agency, but the addition of former Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton — one of the league’s fastest players and best defenders — reinforced Moore’s vision for victory as the rebuild enters its second year.
In almost every way imaginable, 2019 will mark the dawn of a new era in Minnesota. New manager Rocco Baldelli takes over a team missing the on-field and off-field cornerstones of its last half-decade. The front office tandem of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine has a hand-picked skipper, a new-age coaching staff and a roster they’ve begun to reshape in a manner more affirmatively characteristic of their approach to the game.
Joe Mauer’s retirement and various expiring contracts left the team tremendous payroll flexibility, and they used it to collect players whose price tags made them undesirable to other teams, despite good talent. Betting on talent, in the absence of consistent production, will define 2019 and could set the direction of the franchise in years to come.